"Baltimore would be displaying a short memory if it allowed Henry Barnes to depart without a warm expression of public appreciation," said The Evening Sun in 1962, in tribute to the famed traffic expert who had spent a quarter-century unsnarling traffic in some of the nation's largest cities, when he left Baltimore to become New York City's traffic czar.
"Disputatious to the end, his verbal disagreements do not overshadow his many solid accomplishments, which have earned him the highest honor in his field: the chance to tackle New York's traffic mess."
At his death in 1968, The Sun said:
"Long before 'innovative' became the bureaucratic byword, Henry A. Barnes was the living cigar-breathing, loquacious exponent of trial-and-error administrative creativity. Sizing up a traffic snarl on the spot, he fiddled personally with the traffic control box while motorists burned.
"Stalled drivers shook their fists at him, and Hank Barnes only grinned his wide-open grin, with the Terry-Thomas gap in the front teeth, and went on with his adjustments. In the retelling, he enjoyed his 'goofs,' as much as his achievements, and never hesitated to admit he was wrong. But he wasn't wrong often."
An expert for Baltimore
An internationally respected traffic expert, who was described by detractors as a "pugnacious publicity hound," Barnes came to Baltimore in 1953 from Denver as director of traffic and later became commissioner of transit and traffic.
In his 1965 autobiography, "The Man With Red and Green Eyes," Barnes described Baltimore as "a town even Rube Goldberg couldn't invent."
The city's reputation as an East Coast traffic bottleneck was later eased with the opening of the Harbor Tunnel and the Beltway, but until then, drivers had to fight their way across the city in a time-consuming and maddening passage quite often over clogged and congested downtown streets.
Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., who hired Barnes to straighten out Baltimore's notorious traffic, said Baltimore's streets were like "the jig-saw puzzles I used to make as a young man. Henry Barnes was the most famous man in his field in the world and Baltimore helped him reach the top."
One of the city's legendary intersections that daily raised the blood pressure of motorists and pitted truck traffic against buses and motorist against pedestrian in an Olympic-like contest was at Pratt and Light streets.
Barnes wasted no time in 1953 when he borrowed some signal equipment, empty oil drums, paint and signs and created makeshift traffic lanes, which resulted in the traffic suddenly and smoothly passing through what had been a notorious roadblock.
Satisfied with the results there, he turned his attention to Park Circle, where previous engineers had failed. His solution: a combination of lanes, islands and lights.
He tackled the ever-present jam at Hilton Street and Frederick and Caton avenues; devised a traffic plan for fans attending Oriole and Colt games at Memorial Stadium; and managed to triple the hourly flow over the Hanover Street bridge, another dreaded motorists' obstacle.
Secret to effectiveness
Barnes made his solutions sound simple and obvious.
"There's more traffic control in a pail of paint than in almost anything else," he was fond of saying.
"He painted the town yellow. He moved curbs, rounded corners, created one-way streets galore, put up two lights for every previous one, erected left-turn, and no-turn and 'O.K.' signs, and created an electronically controlled signal system that continues function long after increasing traffic should have ground to a halt," said The Sun in 1968.
He won high praise even from cab drivers.
"He turned this town upside down and righted it again. Traffic's never been the same, and it's a damn good thing," said a cab driver in a 1968 interview with The Sun.
Barnes waged war day and night. He battled with the Baltimore Transit Co. over its tardy buses, slowness in converting streetcar lines and poor public relations. He aroused the ire of the Women's Civic League when he suggested that the annual Flower Mart be moved from Mount Vernon Place to a less congested street. They refused; he gave in.
He blasted the Post Office and said their trucks had no privilege to tie up streets.
When his own chauffeur-driven car was found illegally parked at the Battle Monument, he acknowledged that it was a "technical" violation but said that he was able to issue himself a temporary parking permit and therefore could park anywhere in the city at any time.
Perhaps his most memorable and lasting contribution is the "Barnes Dance," which he brought to Baltimore from Denver, where he had employed it successfully.
The Barnes Dance allows unrestricted pedestrian crossing at an intersection while all traffic lights are set red against motorists for a few minutes.
He laughed at and resolved Baltimore's usual panic at the forecast of snow with the creation of a snow emergency plan. It was one of his proudest achievements. "Today, we cope with the problem of snow with no panic," he declared.
"He reversed major streets, banned trucks from major thoroughfares, put in complex signal controllers, banned left turns, suggested removal of some statues from streets, and called for parking meters," reported The Sun in 1968.
"The biggest obstacle for the traffic engineer," Barnes often said, "is the unwillingness of people to change old habits."
Started working at 14
Born and raised in Newark, N.Y., Barnes went to work when he was 14 after his father abandoned the family. He worked in the New York Central Railroad yards as a 50-cent-an-hour laborer.
He later worked as an electrician's helper and mechanic, drove a transit bus, and later worked for General Motors in Flint, Mich., eventually becoming a policeman on the city's force.
In 1941, he was put in charge of Flint's traffic engineering bureau and remained there until 1948, when he went to work in Denver.
Said The Evening Sun in 1962: "He involved Baltimoreans in his daily operations as they were never involved before or since in municipal affairs. Baltimoreans knew what Barnes was up to, and he backed off when they hooted, beamed when they applauded. A screwdriver and a lot of sass were his stock and trade, but public support was his mainstay."
Pub Date: 6/08/97